It’s been a rough few weeks for NHL arbitrators. While 25 contract cases had been scheduled for hearings, only Tyson Barrie made it to a hearing, and that was resolved before a ruling was issued, meaning the league’s arbitrators didn’t get to render a single decision. And all that comes on the heels of news that James Oldham, the neutral arbitrator who ruled on the Dennis Wideman case, had been dismissed by the league.
But during these dark days for the league’s proud arbitrating fraternity, it’s worth remembering that times weren’t always so tough. The NHL has a long history of arbitrators making headlines, on cases involving everything from contract signings to disputed trades and beyond.
Here’s a look back on five times in NHL history that an arbitrator got the chance to bask in the spotlight.
THE RFA FILES
The case: Today’s fans are familiar with the concept of restricted free agency. Certain players, typically those in the early stages of their pro careers, can find themselves eligible to sign offer sheets with other teams. If the offer isn’t matched, compensation is paid in the form of draft picks, based on a league-mandated scale. But the offer is matched, pretty much every time, which is why they’re rarely even attempted anymore and restricted free agency usually ends up being a dud.
Years ago, things were a lot more interesting.
Back before the current system came into place, the league went through a period where RFA signings were still subject to compensation. But instead of a list of draft picks and dollar signs, the compensation took the form of actual players. Each team – the one that had signed the RFA, and the one that was losing him – would have to submit what they thought was a fair trade to an arbitrator. And that arbitrator would have to pick one offer or the other, with no room to split the difference or compromise.
It was amazingly entertaining, and the strategy involved was fascinating. If you were signing another team’s RFA, would you lowball on your compensation to try to get the best possible value? Or did you make a generous offer just to make sure you weren’t burned? And if you were losing a player, did you retaliate by asking for someone even better in return?
OK, that last one sounds kind of over the top. But the New Jersey Devils tried it anyway, it worked, and everyone lost their minds.
The ruling: The player compensation system was used in all sorts of RFA signings over the years (I’m still not over the Maple Leafs losing Peter Zezel for Mike Craig). But the most famous case came in the early 90s, when the St. Louis Blues went on a spending spree targeting other teams RFAs. In 1990, they signed Scott Stevens away from the Capitals and named him team captain. And then in 1991, they went after Brendan Shanahan of the Devils.
Those were two big moves – Shanahan was a 22-year-old power forward who looked like a future star, and Stevens was already considered one of the best defensemen in the league. Put them together, along with established stars like Brett Hull and Adam Oates, and you had the core of a potential Cup champion. But as it turned out, it was the “put them together” part that ended up being a problem.
When it came time for an arbitrator to rule on Shanahan’s compensation, the Blues made a generous offer: Curtis Joseph and Rod Brind’Amour, two very good young players who’d go on to long and successful NHL careers. But the Devils shocked everyone by swinging for the fences and asking for Stevens. That seemed crazy – Shanahan was good, but Stevens was far better. But arbitrator Edward Houston stunned the hockey world by siding with the Devils, sending Stevens to New Jersey.
Understandably, the Blues flipped out. Stevens was also furious, initially refusing to report to the Devils before finally backing down shortly before the season started. The deal was a lopsided steal for New Jersey, one that helped set the stage for three Stanley Cups to come. To make matters worse, the Blues even tried to get Stevens back in 1994, and ended up getting nailed for tampering because of it.
To this day, Stevens-for-Shanahan stands as one of the biggest trades in NHL history. And thanks to an arbitrator, it was made against the will of one of the teams involved.